The Experience of Apathy


Q: I have been spending time with the Spiritual Journey program, and I just watched the video ‘Frustrations Caused by the Emotional Programs’ (from Part 2 of the ‘Human Condition’). When Fr. Keating discusses apathy, he says ‘There is almost nothing you can do with that disposition. Apathy is the pervasive opting-out of life and hugging one’s own little lifestyle and nest for the sake of ever better and better survival on that level. It’s a fixation on human misery.’ Despite having a very fulfilling career, I have found myself falling deeper and deeper into the pit of apathy over the last couple years. Is there something that I can do to move beyond this emotional state? Or is there truly nothing that can be done with this disposition? I have been regularly practicing Centering Prayer for two years and have a desire be rid of this apathy, but I feel very ‘stuck’.

A: As a therapist I always check to rule out clinical depression by asking you more questions–is it the feeling of apathy or could it be depression?  Does it interfere with your daily functioning or ability to maintain relationships?  You get my drift.  If any of these resonate, please speak to your doctor; there is help available.

On the other hand, apathy, which is defined as the absence of emotion or lack of interest, is much like acedia that Evagrius called the spiritual state of listlessness.  This is often part of the Dark Night experience as Spirit relieves us from our overdependence on sense experiences, feelings, or in 12-step terms, people, places, and things.  Your awareness of this inner detachment is the gift.  Fr. Thomas taught that it is like all consolation just goes away, and we feel utterly abandoned.  But we aren’t.  We are asked to just keep showing up to our prayer practice and a radical, invincible trust begins to emerge gradually.  And at some point, we emerge to a deeper, freer level of consciousness.  This process is hard, but extraordinarily worth it!  We are just being loved into life, but it often feels the price is to die to who we thought we were and who we thought God is.  But GOD IS, so fear not!

Fr. Thomas describes some of this in his poem, “Twilight of the Self”, from The Secret Embrace:

My heart is solitary now.

It finds no companionship anywhere

And no wish to find any.

My sole desire is You,

And You are always absent.

Can one love absence so intensely

That even Your presence

Seems like an intrusion?

I move around in aimless circles.

Rituals and sacred symbols,

Once treasured sources of relating to You,

Are meaningless to me now.

They communicate nothing of You,

Who are everything to me,

But for whom and from whom I feel no love,

Nor hope of fulfillment.

I am as one turned inside out,

And there is nothing there–not You, not me.

If this is union, there is neither two in One,

Nor One without another.

I long to relate to everyone,

Yet lack the capacity to relate to anyone.

There is only Your boundless presence

That treats me like a thing without a heart,

Except perhaps a broken heart.

For the God I thought I knew

No longer exists.

Hope this helps some.  Please feel free to reach out if I have confused the issue for you.  And blessings on your journey.

Mary Dwyer
Contemplative Outreach

Response from questioner: Thank you so much for your detailed response. Father Keating’s description of apathy in the video absolutely describes my overall emotional state for the last year or so. While it does not quite feel like it is a depression, I am also unsure that I resonate with the feeling that he describes in the poem you shared. It’s a kind of perpetual feeling of being ‘stuck’. Perhaps it takes some discerning? Or perhaps it is an opportunity to practice the ‘radical, invincible trust’ that you mention, and see what unfolds? Thanks again for your response and insight.

Mary responds: Thanks for replying. I felt unsettled this morning at prayer that I really missed the mark on answering your question. But as I understand Thomas Keating’s teaching, it all comes back to that radical, invincible trust that we really are being loved into life even when we feel nothing. And the deeper movement that is happening is changing/shifting the ground of being from self to God (Love). I have definitely been where you are for long stretches of time … and sometimes revisit it still. But trust the process. It is worth the wait. The core message Fr. Thomas reinforced to me was it’s not about ‘my psychological experience;’ it’s really about my heart’s intention and consenting to that by being willing to sit.

Second response from questioner: Very, very helpful what you said about not focusing on my ‘psychological experience’ and instead focusing on the heart’s intent and willingness to sit.  Jim Finley is currently doing a podcast on Meister Eckhart, and he echoes what you say about shifting of the ground from self to God. I appreciate your words of encouragement in trusting the process.